Highway 101 open after El Capitán Canyon fire burns 420 acres — but more wind is on the way

Update 5:20 p.m.:

The fire is now 50 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Acreage is holding at 420 acres as of 5:20 p.m.

Original story:

A wind-whipped vegetation fire on Thursday night blackened 420 acres, threatened more than 100 structures area along the Gaviota coast and temporarily closed Highway 101 before firefighters were able to gain the upper hand on the blaze.

Crews from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, Cal Fire, the U.S Forest Service and other agencies were dispatched shortly after 4:30 p.m. to what was dubbed the Real Fire, burning in the foothills on the north side of Highway 101 near El Capitán State Beach.

Both sides of the freeway were closed at Las Varas and Refugio for about three hours, starting about 5:30 p.m. Highway 101 was completely open again by 8:30 p.m., according to tweets from the Santa Barbara CHP.

The fire started in a canyon west of El Capitán Canyon, and burned east over the ridge, threatening dozens of structures at the El Capitán Canyon resort and its companion Ocean Mesa RV campground, as well as nearby ranches, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Daniel Bertucelli.

All were evacuated, along with the El Capitán State Beach campground, across Highway 101.

No structures were damaged by the fire, which was 20 percent contained as of 9:30 a.m., according to Mike Eliason, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. No injuries were reported.

Battling a wind-driven fire

Some 250 firefighters remained on scene and worked through the night building and strengthening containment lines and dousing hot spots.

Winds that had gusted to 40 mph when the blaze broke out had largely diminished, allowing crews to make progress on fire containment.

By early evening the fire began “laying down” and was “running out of fuel,” Bertucelli told Noozhawk.

At the peak of the fire, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft attacked the flames from the air with retardant and water drops, while dozens of engines, along with bulldozers and handcrews, fought it from the ground, Bertucelli said.

Evacuation warnings were issued for areas near Refugio Canyon and west of Winchester Canyon, but they were dropped shortly before 7 p.m.

The first firefighters on the scene reported the fire was being fanned by gusty winds and moving quickly.

There was concern that the blaze would jump Highway 101 and threaten the state park, but that did not occur, Bertucelli said.

In addition to the freeway closures, train traffic also was halted in the area of the blaze but was allowed to resume at 7 p.m.

Flames from the Real Fire in El Capitán Canyon light up the terrain on the Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County. Diego Topete Noozhawk

Dangerous fire weather ahead

All evacuation orders had been lifted by Thursday night, with the exception of the Ocean Mesa campground, El Capitán Canyon campground and El Capitán State Beach.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office announced that campers and residents evacuated from the Ocean Mesa campground and the El Capitán Canyon Resort will be allowed to retrieve their personal belongings beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday.

They were directed to meet at the main entrance to the canyon, and will be escorted from there.

An estimated 200 firefighters were scheduled to be on the fire lines on Friday, aided by aircraft as needed to contain the blaze before an expected wind event.

A fire weather watch has been issued by the National Weather Service for the area, extending from 6 p.m. on Friday until 8 p.m. on Sunday.

Forecasters are calling for northeast winds of 20 to 30 mph, with gusts to 60 mph. Relatively humidity could drop as low as 10%, creating the potential for dangerous wildfires.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.